Morning. Nikas. It is cold out there. It is anything but temperate just after Super Tuesday and now the sudden geese-like, honking calls for a return to political sanity in view of the Trump juggernaut. Sanity. Any number of talking heads will tell you that sanity has been AWOL from the Republican Party side of things since, since when? Well, there was Goldwater, for starters, whose extremism parlayed into the 1964 election blow-out, LBJ steamrolling over everything ‘conservative’. Still, there are those who will talk history, and, talking history, they will tell you the insanity took root even farther in the past, much farther, antebellum-like farther; and then we would be on about state’s rights, slave trading, the civil war, carpet-bagging and the whole nine yards. The thing is, back then there was no hipster irony with which to salve a nation’s wounds psychic or otherwise, be they self-inflicted or not. Giant monitor screens handily flashing at you flashbacks to Wonder Woman and The Monkees as you park yourself in the local beer tent on a Saturday night? There was none of that, though there was the telegraph and there was newsprint. Political cartoons malingered in the pages of the The Rail-Splitter and Harper’s Weekly. But those budding little street thugs with agendas popping through every fissure and crack and bullethole in the House of Atreus, or rather the homeland? Could be there is something untoward in that pint of IPA.
It is almost entertaining, the sight of electioneering pols in the course of a televised debate reaching for their thoughts and encountering vast vacant spaces until they come up against their medullae oblongatae. So which is the lesser of two weevils? The faux civility of intellectual jousting and exchanges of substance à la Buckley and Vidal, the object of the exercise to boost sagging TV ratings by way of catty interfacing? That CNN News roster of brawling presidential contenders hyped on schoolyard aspersions as to the state of rival genitalia, the crowds lapping it up, media stuffed to the gills on the ubiquitous ratings and the smug one-liners, the whole world measured and pleasured, America acting out some Ouroboric myth in the negative whereby it dreamily cannibalizes itself? Who truly wants, who truly needs a serious policy discussion? How outré. The grass roots getting its mad on, be it a product of stupidity or genuine grievance or a messy mix of both and seemingly unappeasable, is all the more frightening as each day passes by, outstripping one’s capacity for disbelief.
Yes, early on in my reading of Shelby Foote’s The Civil War, I encountered the following passage, Lincoln speaking to his secretary: ‘For my part I consider the central idea pervading this struggle is the necessity that is upon us of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapacity of the people to govern themselves.’ I read these words and experienced something akin to nostalgia for an old history lesson I might have had in high school, the basketball coach setting the stage for Appomattox. I was chastened by the lucidity with which a dilemma was once articulated. The chill set in as I recognized in the words what again besets a nation-state to the south of here; and though no civil war is necessarily in the offing, the words quoted above, in their present-day context, are as so many rocks of a familiar coast against which so many good little ships nonetheless dash themselves to pieces; little ships that would set things right, regardless of their ports of origin, Limbaugh, say, or Chomsky; all the while the so-called fat cats fatten on the profits the shipwrecked cargo accrues to them. Ah, your kindly, beachcombing kazillionaires. Moreover, Mr Foote’s book brings back to me my reading of the poet Charles Potts’ How the South Finally Won the Civil War and Controls the Political Future of the United States, Tsunami Press, INC, Walla Walla, Washington, 1995. A centrist historian, should he or she have read the tea leaves therein, may well have found the book too rabid in its import. A rightie, flipping through its pages, will see his or her worst nightmare in the person of my old poetry mentor of the 60s. If I eventually walked away from the poetics he embraced, I did not otherwise snub an un-pretty view of how the U.S. of A. got to be the U.S. of A. by way of the usual means, and with a side order of exceptionalism and special destiny. A leftie will sympathize with the book’s intent only to nitpick Potts’ reading of the details and then intone the cure. Whatever, as they say, in keeping with the spirit of the zeit-whatever: IMS or Irritable Mind Syndrome. At any rate, here we have it: a man like Trump, he with the bluster and wealth and populist leverage, but not the wit, of Julius Caesar; and he forces a country to turn a corner from which there may be no turning back—
Otherwise, it has been a quiet spate of days since the last ‘post’. There was another ad hoc gathering at Bugatti Don’s and another reading aloud from the Aeneid, though not Frederick Ahl’s translation of the same based on loose hexameters that apparently retain a great deal of Virgil’s wordplay, and approved by London Lunar’s up-thumb, though London Lunar has his quibbles with the translation once the Dido interlude plays itself out. But while we are on this Virgilian kick, I might mention that I have come across a writing to do with Syria that suggests that a blindsided world, as it drifts into the future, is also backsliding to a state of mind reminiscent of pre-WWI days, days which were both the winding-down and the winding-up of empires. To quote: ‘Overall, the fast-moving current of antiquation that is engulfing us all appears to be a result of three springs merging into one: the spring of religion, which offers legitimacy to existing and soon-to-exist despotic authorities; the spring of despotic states that receive assistance and legitimacy from a world system centered around stability; and the spring of this world-system itself, which acts as a pillar for different forms of discrimination, privilege and prejudice. The antiquated is a mixture of discrimination and prejudice protected by force, which in turn protects privilege. It is the face of rising reactionarism in today’s world.’ It seemed I had just read an ancient op-ed on hostilities between Egyptians and Hittites from the point of view of a Cretan, the Sea Peoples just over the horizon. In the course of reading the screed, nerve-endings popped, the kind of nerve-endings that are sensitive to time stacking up against itself and then violently uncoiling, as in whiplash, and out rolls the 8th century of Byzantium or England’s Edwardian years, the long, summer afternoons. It seemed I had been subject to a ‘clarification session’. It was as if Cavafy had joined forces with Lawrence of Arabia, the writing reeking of gunpowder, Neo-platonism, incense and assorted, dusty papyrus rolls. How accurate the essay’s portrayal of current realities, I cannot say. Now who was that guy who wrote The Kreutzer Sonata (which has to do with sex and abstinence from the same, not Kissingerian coos of fulfillment)?
I continue to sidle back to Patrick Kurp’s Anecdotal Evidence two or three times a week, as if to an oasis for good water, good dates and a bit of relief from Canada Council e-mail alerts. Where else is one going to find Tall, Opaque Words and then a discussion of the gist, followed by disquisitions on the likes of Boswell and Johnson, Mandelstam, Z Herbert, Stevie Smith, plus Ormsby and Kociejowski, a couple of high plains drifters those two. And just how Etruscan is the word sibyl as opposed to Greek? Have standards fallen when it comes to smoked meat, mustard, jukeboxes and skeptical bobby soxers down there in some St Henri diner? Will cheesy narratival opportunism continue to prevail in the world of HBO tele-dramas as we skid into a world all Terminator 3? It was Kurp who remarked to me that Shelby Foote’s three volumes on the American civil war is the American Iliad, and I believe he has a point. I do not know if Mr Kurp enjoys playing poker, but I have no trouble imagining that he would bump a miserable little raise of Wallace Stegner with the collected works of Voltaire, thereby illustrating the fact that literature is both life and death and a parlour game—
An Athenian has written on the art of someone close to me – in the demotic. I had recourse to Eleftheria, daughter of Alexandra the waitress here in Nikas, for a translation. The translation of the summing up tickled me, because it is true of Mary Harman’s work: The perpetual movement of the painting in its own frame is fascinating. It’s as if nothing wants to leave. For a moment there I thought things were unfolding as they should, a tribute delivered by way of honest estimation and affection—